I deal with a lot of people who want rules: good, solid, definite hard-and-fast do-not-pass-go-go-directly-to-jail rules. But the world I live in is on the situational side. For example, it’s a rule that books with their covers torn off, get tossed in the recycling bin. But do not let this keep you from sending over that coverless Gutenberg Bible or that copy of The Great Gatsby with an inscription from the author so endearing that your grandfather threw it at your grandmother when he read it.
Last week, a nice lady called to inquire whether her books were worth a lot of money. “I have a first edition of Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis, from 1947! It doesn’t have the jacket, but it definitely is a first edition.”
Oh, I hate dashing the hopes of the bright-eyed optimists of this world. “Well, actually,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “It’s the books he wrote in the Teens and Twenties that command the high prices. That’s one of the later works, and people aren’t as interested in it, especially without the jacket.”
She understood completely. “So books from the 1940s and 1950s aren’t really collectible.”
I’m sure there’s a psychological/philosophical term for this jumping from a specific instance to a vast general rule. I tried to explain more thoroughly. “It varies from author to author,” I said. “A book by Jack Kerouac or Ross MacDonald from the Forites or Fifties is, because that’s toward the beginning of their careers. It’s the material they started with that’s usually valuable.”
“Oh,” she said, in that tone women use to let you know you are not making sense at all, and this is YOUR fault.
People love to call and tell me “I have lots of old books. Some of them date back to the 1890s.” They don’t see that “old” is a relative term: a Bible published in 1860 is not old, for a Bible. But a book about Abraham Lincoln published in 1860 is old for a Lincoln book because it comes from the earliest period when people thought the Railsplitter was worth writing about. An 1893 book about Abraham Lincoln is not, in the world of Lincoln books, especially old. A book on airplanes from 1893, on the other hand, is of respectable age. A book about airplanes from 1973 is not, even if it’s older than you, chocolate chutney. But a book on personal computers from 1973 is. It all depends.
“How can I tell if my books are valuable?” is another one they ask me. They want a few hard and fast rules that they can apply to each book on the shelves.
I have one. “Go look them up.” It never makes them happy, somehow. Maybe I broke the advice rules.
ADOPTION UPDATE: The Shakespeare quote and Debussy’s toy ballet are now neck and neck in first place, with Mozart running a close second, and the Dancing Baptist third. A few online donations (yes, you can wander over to the library with a check if you don’t like trusting your money in cyberspace) and you could put your candidate in the front. Surely SOMEBODY out there has a soft spot in their heart for Moby Dick! (Which reminds me, I still haven’t done that blog about the book you would wish on your worst enemy if he/she were stuck on a desert island with only one book. Yeah, Moby made the list.)